I have always thought Friedrich Nietzsche’s first serious foray into philosophy, The Birth of Tragedy, is a rather amateurish effort. Having said that, his distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian human traits is useful. In the simplest formulation, Apollo represents reason, form, and order, while Dionysius represents emotion, revelry and chaos. The tension between these is both destructive and procreative. A person, or even a society or culture might value one pole more than the other, but they’re inextricable parts of human nature. How they work together will tell you a lot, but they can’t be isolated from each other.
In this context, I often think of the Amish practice of Rumspringa.
When Amish children turn 16, the rules change. They’re encouraged to experiment and explore. The idea is that teens will come back to the church after tasting the modern world. For most, this means a tentative foray — a trip to the local movie theater, or driving lessons. But for some, the experience, called rumspringa, is all about sex, parties and fast cars.
The Amish live a restrictive life, and they recognize that teenagers will be rebellious. Moreover, they know it’s best if their children freely choose their anti-modern lifestyle, and to make a true choice they need some direct experience with what they’ll be missing. But what’s really going on is that they’re letting their kids set aside the Apollonian for a spell and have a go with the Dionysian.
A key feature of Rumspringa, however, is that it comes to an end. Eventually, the youth will either be baptized or leave the faith.
Sometimes I feel like the whole Donald Trump political phenomenon and movement is like a Rumspringa for people who harbor an unnatural amount of resentment. They were given a pass on the standards of behavior and decency normally expected of them, and allowed to delve into a kind of ecstatic freedom to be unapologetic assholes. Of course, unrestrained assholes cause a lot of hurt and damage, but there’s a sense in which it could be cleansing if it were to come to an end where people look around and say to themselves that it’s a false freedom–that as restrictive as the old way of life was, it’s better to follow in the steps of their parents.
In the Dionysian sense, it’s like the orgiastic bacchanalia described by Livy. Periodically, people come together with the intention of abandoning reason and restraint, to dance and drink to excess and be promiscuous. Without this, the life of order and reason becomes sterile and oppressive.
But Livy also described the bacchanalia as a cult that threatened the state. Here he quotes Spurius Postumius Albinus, the Roman consul in 186 BCE.
Whatever villainy there has been in recent years due to lust, whatever to fraud, whatever to crime, I tell you, has arisen from this one cult. Not yet have they revealed all the crimes to which they have conspired. Their impious compact still limits itself to private crimes, since as yet it does not have strength enough to crush the state. Daily the evil grows and creeps abroad. It is already too great to be purely a private matter: its objective is the control of the state.
Of course, Trumpism did briefly somewhat control the state, albeit not without a great degree of Apollonian resistance (call it “the Deep State,” if you will). It aspires to control it again, and with more thoroughness.
I believe President Joe Biden long regarded the influence of Trumpism within the Republican Party in something like these terms–as a fever that must eventually break. In this sense, it could even be curative, like leeching the poison out of a suppurating wound of long suffering grievance.
But this only works if the thrill of anti-woke transgression burns out and the wanderers return to the fold, strengthened in their sense that the original rules contained wisdom and a better course.
If only Trumpism could be regarded as merely a teenage rite of passage- a sowing of oats before family and responsibility take hold.
Apollonian Rome found it necessary to crack down on Dionysian excess, and it seems the Apollonian District of Columbia is currently attempting the same. Maybe the pendulum really is swinging back from unreasoning excess to light and order. Balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian is never guaranteed, but neither side can ever truly prevail over the other.